Panic attacks can be overwhelming and oftentimes can arise without warning. Living with this level of unpredictability can be extremely difficult, and can make everyday life seem nearly impossible. That’s why knowing what to do when they arise is one of the most important things you can do to stop them from becoming problematic. In this article, we’ll cover six ways to stop a panic attack, and give you the tools you need to live a more panic-free life. First, let’s start by understanding what a panic attack is, and what causes them in the first place.
Understanding Panic Attacks
A panic attack is a sudden episode of intense, often debilitating, anxiety that triggers severe physical reactions when there is no apparent cause. Panic attacks can be extremely frightening. When they occur, you may feel as though you are losing control, having a heart attack, or even dying. These episodes can last from a few minutes to half an hour and can vary wildly in severity.
Panic attacks are more common than you may think. It’s estimated that nearly 13% of people in the United States experience at least one panic attack in their lifetime. While most people will experience one or two panic attacks in their lifetime, many will experience recurrent, unexpected panic attacks and spend long periods in constant fear of another attack. When panic attacks become frequent, you may have a condition known as panic disorder.
Although panic attacks alone aren’t life-threatening, they can be extremely frightening and can cause significant harm to your overall quality of life. Many people with panic disorder have other co-occurring mental health conditions. Some studies estimate that nearly half of people diagnosed with panic disorder suffer from at least one incidence of major depressive disorder in their lifetime.
It’s not always possible to predict when a panic attack will arise, but making a plan for what to do when they do occur can help you feel more in control, and may make it easier to manage. Part of the plan is understanding what causes panic attacks, which we’ll cover next.
What Causes Panic Attacks?
It’s not entirely clear what causes panic attacks or panic disorder. That said, researchers believe that several factors may play a role, these include:
- Genetics or family history
- Major stress
- Certain changes in brain chemistry or brain function
- Temperament that is more sensitive to stress or negative emotions
Some researchers suggest that panic attacks may be caused by your body’s natural fight-or-flight response to danger. This reaction is what causes you to feel fear or the urge to run away when confronted with something scary such as coming across a bear while hiking. While it’s still unclear why, scientists believe that people with panic disorder may have a faulty fight-or-flight response, which causes their unexplained panic attacks.
Many people who experience frequent panic attacks understand what their triggers are. This means that while the exact cause of their panic attacks is unknown, they understand that certain situations or other factors trigger their anxiety.
Six Ways to Stop a Panic Attack
Now that we’ve covered what a panic attack is, as well as what causes them, it’s time to talk about how to stop them. Below, we’ve given you a list of six ways to stop a panic attack, along with some general methods for reducing anxiety. It’s important to remember that these methods may not work for everyone, which is why it’s always best to talk with your doctor or mental healthcare professional before starting or changing your current preventative measures. With that said, here are six ways you stop a panic attack in its tracks.
Find a Mental Health Professional
One of the most effective ways to successfully manage and stop a panic attack is to understand your anxiety. This starts by seeking counseling with a licensed mental healthcare professional. Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and other types of counseling can have real benefits for people with panic disorder. CBT is a type of psychotherapy aimed at helping you change the way you see challenging or fighting situations, and find new ways to approach them as they arise.
CBT can be done in groups, online, in person, or in a hybrid setting that combines at-home and face-to-face. The length of treatment can vary depending on several factors, including how severe your anxiety is, what your triggers are, and your response to therapy.
Numerous studies have found that CBT can affect structures in the brain that are responsible for panic symptoms. These studies have also found that it can also help you better manage your symptoms using your thought processes after the treatment.
Along with CBT and other therapies, seeking professional help can also lead to a diagnosis of panic disorder, which may, in turn, lead to a prescription. There are several main types of medications that you can take to help with panic attacks. These include benzodiazepines such as alprazolam (Xanax), which can help treat the symptoms of panic when they occur.
However, these medications won’t treat the underlying anxiety that accompanies panic attacks, and are also highly addictive, meaning they can lead to dependence. Due to this, doctors will often only prescribe these medications for short periods.
In some instances, your doctor may prescribe anti-depressants for more long-term use. These medications include:
- Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), such as escitalopram (Lexapro) or fluoxetine (Prozac)
- Serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs), such as duloxetine (Cymbalta)
- Anti-anxiety drugs, for instance, azapirone (Buspirone)
Practice Deep Breathing Techniques
Hyperventilating is a common symptom of a panic attack that can increase fear. Because of this, practicing deep breathing can reduce symptoms during a panic attack, which can help slow or stop one from becoming severe.
A 2017 study that followed 40 people with frequent panic attacks found that those who went to therapy sessions that involved controlled breathing exercises saw improvements in their attention levels and emotional well-being. Blood tests from the same study also showed lower cortisol levels in the controlled breathing group, which suggests lower levels of overall stress.
For controlled breathing exercises, try focusing on taking deep breaths in and out through your mouth. Make sure that you are feeling the air slowly filling your lungs and belly, and then slowly leave them again. Breathe in, counting to five, hold for a second, and then exhale counting to five again.
Understand the Signs of a Panic Attack
This may go without saying, but understanding the signs of a coming panic attack is one of the most important ways to stop one from occurring. By understanding that you’re having, or about to have a panic attack, you can remind yourself that it is temporary, that it will pass, and that you will be okay.
Understanding that you’re having a panic attack can also help you start to implement other mitigation efforts like deep breathing or relaxation before your symptoms become severe. Some common symptoms that you can look out for include:
- Sudden fear of loss of control or death
- Sense of impending doom or danger
- Shortness of breath
- Hot flashes
- Trembling or shaking
- Rapid heart rate
- Dizziness or lightheadedness
That said, it’s not always possible to avoid certain triggers or causes for a panic attack. However, if you know what triggers your anxiety, avoiding it can help reduce your chances of having a panic attack.
Try Getting Regular Exercise
It doesn’t need to be anything major, but studies have shown that regular exercise can not only keep your body healthy but boost your mental health as well. One study has found that exercising at 50-90% of your maximum heart rate for at least 20 minutes a day, at least three days a week can significantly reduce anxiety levels.
Regular exercise can include things like light walking, jogging, hiking, running, aerobics, or other similar activities. It’s always important to talk with your doctor before starting an exercise routine, as they can help guide you towards what activities you should stay away from, or if exercise is right for you.
Use Muscle Relaxation Techniques
Another common symptom of a panic attack is muscle tension. Practicing muscle relaxation techniques can help reduce this tension, and give your body a sense of relaxation during a panic attack. One such technique is called progressive muscle relaxation, which aims to release tension in a specific muscle, or muscle group, at a time to relax the whole body.
Similar to controlled breathing exercises, progressive muscle relaxation techniques can help you stop your panic attacks by controlling your body’s physical response. This technique involves tensing up and then relaxing various muscles in turn. To do this:
- Hold the tension for 5 seconds.
- Say “relax” as you release the muscle.
- Let the muscle relax for 10 seconds before moving on to the next muscle.
To practice this technique at home, start by picking a specific muscle. Next, consciously relax the muscle, allow it to fully relax, and then move on to the next closest muscle. Muscle relaxation techniques will be most effective when you’ve practiced them beforehand.
What Do You Think About These Six Ways To Stop a Panic Attack?
Let us know in the comments section below!
What topics related to panic attacks or mental health should we cover next?
Email us your ideas at firstname.lastname@example.org, we may just feature yours in a future article!
Want even more Pain Resource Content?